When a rebuilding team like the Orioles isn’t currently trying to win, there’s still something interesting going on. (Even if Jon Heyman disagrees.) That’s because although the losses are all but guaranteed in 2020, probably in 2021, and maybe in 2022, the results on the field still matter. You may have an idea of what’s going to happen, but you don’t know the how. And the how matters.
Opportunities and playing time are up for grabs, and that’s how players like John Means and Hanser Alberto end up with random and satisfying seasons. It’s how a team can end up with Jonathan Villar playing every game and posting 4.0 wins above replacement. And it’s how Asher Wojciechowski, whom the Orioles purchased from the Indians about a week before the All-Star Break, ended up fourth on the O’s in pitcher fWAR (0.9), fifth in innings pitched (82.1) and with the fourth-best ERA among their starters (4.96).
Posting an ERA near 5.00 in 82-plus innings may not seem like a huge accomplishment, but Wojciechowski has been on quite the journey. Drafted 41st overall by the Blue Jays in 2010, he was traded to the Astros in 2012 and has been well traveled since 2016. Before 2019, he had brief stints in the majors with the Astros (2015) and Reds (2017), and he pitched in the minor leagues for those two organizations along with the Marlins, White Sox, Orioles and Indians. The O’s released him in the middle of the 2018 season, but he found his way back in 2019 — with the major-league club this time.
Wojciechowski, who will turn 31 later this month, wasn’t great for the O’s in 2019, but he was more effective than his two earlier stretches in the majors even though the peripherals aren’t worth bragging about:
2015 (Astros): 7.16 ERA, 4.05 FIP, 20.3 K%, 8.9 BB%, 0.1 fWAR (16.1 IP)
2017 (Reds): 6.50 ERA, 5.18 FIP, 22.9 K%, 6.8 BB%, 0.3 fWAR (62.1 IP)
2019 (Orioles): 4.92 ERA, 5.30 FIP, 22.2 K%, 7.8 BB%, 0.9 fWAR (82.1 IP)
Interestingly, two of Wojciechowski’s best starts came against the Red Sox. In his fourth start for the O’s, he held Boston scoreless through 7.1 innings, striking out 10 while allowing one hit and two walks. Then, in his final start of the season, he threw six shutout innings and allowed four hits and one walk to go with six strikeouts.
As you’d expect, there was plenty of inconsistency among Wojciechowski’s outings as well, but overall, he was fine. And considering the current state of the O’s major league roster, fine is more than acceptable. In fact, the Orioles would be downright thrilled with fine.
With Dylan Bundy traded to the Angels in exchange for four right-handed pitching prospects and Aaron Brooks signing with the Kia Tigers in Korea, the only rotation locks are Means, Alex Cobb (assuming he’s healthy) and Wojciechowski (who’s “earned the right of first refusal with how he pitched” in 2019, according to general manager Mike Elias).
Wojciechowski has earned another chance to impress, but he has his work cut out for him. Like the concerns with his peripherals, his Statcast numbers aren’t impressive. Last season, he rated average or below average in fastball velocity (29th percentile), strikeout percentage (47th percentile), hard-hit percentage (48th percentile) and expected wOBA (21st percentile). He was above average in exit velocity (60th percentile) but was also in the bottom 6 percent in barrel percentage. Like his fellow O’s pitching brethren, Wojciechowski allowed plenty of home runs (1.86 HR/9).
And yet, with league-average strikeout and walk rates, he was able to do enough to get by. Part of that success can be tied to the Indians convincing Wojciechowski to again start throwing his cutter, which he abandoned in 2015. The cutter fits in nicely with his four-seam fastball, changeup, and slider. “The slider is more of a slurve, and the cutter is more of a slider,” Wojciechowski clarified.
According to Pitch Info Pitch Value data available on FanGraphs, Wojciechowski’s cutter ranked 16th among all starters who threw at least 50 innings. It was also his only pitch not to have a negative value. In his first cup of coffee with the Astros, he threw the cutter about 10 percent of the time. Last season, he threw it about twice as much. It’s easy to see why: Opposing hitters combined for a .271 wOBA and .279 xwOBA against his cutter, with a whiff percentage better than 36 percent. (It’s worth pointing out that Baseball Savant labels Wojciechowski’s cutter as a slider and his slider as a curveball.)
But even with the cutter back in the fold and providing a step in the right direction, Wojciechowski just hasn’t done enough to inspire much confidence. It’s hardly shocking that an early projection from Steamer has him posting a 5.87 ERA and a 6.02 FIP. It also pegs his HR/9 at 2.26!
No matter how you slice it, Wojciechowski was a nice surprise in 2019 but still projects as a starter who is going to take his lumps next season. He’s not overpowering, doesn’t miss a ton of bats, doesn’t induce many ground balls and he gets barreled up a lot. But there’s still a chance he’s decent enough to hold down a rotation spot for much of the season and possibly beyond. That would most likely say more about the talent level of the Orioles’ roster, but hey, it would be a nice story. Ask someone like John Means about being counted out.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles